As the mother of a child with autism and a pastor’s wife, I have a passion for special needs ministries. I truly believe the church needs to be willing to adapt and accommodate these individuals. However, the reality is that not all churches have the man power nor the resources to adequately meet the needs of all individuals, and sometimes even with the best of efforts, there are individuals whose needs are just so great, that going to church becomes an impossibility for the individual and their family.
I speak from the heart on this subject, because it seems my own family is on the verge of such a dilemma. We are in a small church, struggling to come up with enough volunteers to serve in children’s ministry as it is, and although I know my son is loved and wanted at church, he is struggling to even be able to sit through church, let alone actually function and thrive in it at this point. By struggle, I mean he is miserably unhappy. He is overwhelmed and overly stimulated. He cries, he asks to leave, and if all else fails, he bolts from the room. Me chasing him through the church has become an all too common of a site for our church family. We have tried everything we can think of to help him. We have sought the advice of his therapists and implemented many of the techniques they suggested. We have tried visual schedules and limiting transitions. He is accompanied by his faithful service dog, who eagerly helps and provides sensory support, but still, it is not working. At this point, he is sometimes able to sit through one hour of Sunday School (with me as his aide), but anything beyond that, he simply shuts down. He does not talk, he does not interact, he just wants to go home, to get away from the noise, the excitement, the people, the expectations. And so, we leave. It is not the way I want it, but it is, at least for the time being, our reality. I am not giving up, I am continuing to work with him and try new things. I am praying that in time, he will become more able to sit through a service and that one day we will again attend church as a whole family.
It has given me a whole new idea of what a shut in has become in today’s day and age. Most church ministries simply think of shut ins as the elderly and the very ill who cannot attend church. As the rate of autism increases, I think it may be time for churches to think in broader terms when they consider those who cannot attend church. There are more and more individuals and their families dealing with much more hidden reasons to not attend, and those families are being overlooked and underserved by the church as a whole.
So what can the church do? This is a new area for me. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but being in this position myself, as well as seeing it from the perspective of a pastor’s wife, here is my wish list, so to speak, for what churches can do to reach out to these families in need.
1) Discuss with the family what their needs are and be sure there isn’t something the church can do to help the individual with special needs (adult or child) to be able to attend church on a more regular basis. Make every effort to get the entire family incorporated into church, but understand that even with the best intentions, sometimes the needs of the individual might be too great to be served by the church at this time.
2) Accept the family’s decision. Maybe mom might need to come one Sunday and Dad another so they take turns caretaking. Maybe the entire family will need to miss church. Maybe it is a single parent home or one parent works on Sundays. Understand that sometimes difficult choices have to be made, and although the family may want desperately to attend church, it might not be in the best interest of the individual with autism, at least for the time being. Release the family from any guilt that might cause them. Trust me, as a woman who spent her whole life in church, I can testify first hand that the guilt felt from not being able to attend is great, even if you are doing it in the best interest of your child. God however, knows the needs of these families (and mine). He knows the struggles. He knows their hearts, and it is God’s place to judge, NOT the pastor’s nor the church’s. Let the family know that you miss them, but that you understand why they are not there.
3) Continue to invite (but not pressure) them to various church activities. Perhaps it is hard for the individual with autism to sit through a service in the sanctuary, but maybe a church picnic outside would be more comfortable way to be involved. Invite them to church egg hunts, Christmas parties, fellowship gatherings, Bible School, any events you might have. Even if they can’t come, knowing they are wanted goes a long way.
4) Visit them. A visit from the pastor or church staff is always appreciated, but sometimes a visit from a Sunday School teacher, a children’s church worker, or just a loving individual in the congregation means much more. Besides the opportunity to visit, it opens the door for the individual with autism to get to know the people in the church in their own safe, familiar environment, opening the door for them to possibly one day be able to return.
5) Send them cards, notes, make a phone call. If the individual with autism is a child, have the other kids in their Sunday School class make cards to send. Acknowledge birthdays and special occasions. Let the individual with autism (and their family) know they are still thought about and loved. Don’t forget to include them in things like a church directory, so that others can reach out to them as well.
6)Bring them recordings of the sermon, video tapes of the children’s church lessons, pictures of events to share with them. Send them copies of bulletins, sermon notes, Sunday School lessons, Bible Studies, ect.
7)If possible, see if a Sunday School teacher (or other volunteer) would be willing to come out and share a short part of the lesson with the individual with autism. Individuals with autism need the gospel shared with them on a level they can understand and are comfortable with. Do not neglect the spiritual needs of these individuals. I can speak for my son personally. He may have trouble sitting through a lesson and trouble responding, but he takes in far more than he is given credit for. He is quite capable of learning Bible stories, praying, and memorizing verses. At the very least, take out materials from the lesson so that Mom or Dad can teach the child the week’s lesson.
8) Offer a ride to church for siblings of the individual with autism. Be sure to include the siblings in other church events as well. Have a volunteer willing to look after them so that they can participate, and mom and dad feel comfortable sending them.
9) Consider other ways you can help the family. Take out a meal occasionally, bake cookies for them, offer an afternoon of respite care (even if it is just to give mom a chance to catch up on some housework, while a responsible adult plays a game or reads a book to the individual with autism).
10) Last but certainly not least, pray for the family. Ask if there are specific needs you can pray for, and do so faithfully. Let them know that you are praying for them. It truly is a simple task everyone is capable of, but means so much.
Sometimes the time out of church might just need to be temporary while the family works through issues, but even if it is long term, these individuals and their families can still (and need to) play a vital role in the church family. Don’t leave them out, don’t forget about them, and don’t assume someone else will do it. Whether they are in church every Sunday, once a year, or not at all, they can and should still be a part of the church.